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Google Pixel XL initial review: first 48 hours

The latest Google device is here and so is our initial review. Here's what we think of the Google Pixel XL after using it for the first 48 hours.

Published onOctober 18, 2016

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The latest and most official Google device is here. We’ve only had it for a few days total and while we are able to draw some conclusions in that time, we definitely wanted to continue putting the Pixel XL through its paces to be sure our thoughts indeed hold weight.

For now, we are bringing you what we think in this initial review of the Google Pixel XL!

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First, we open up the box. As the new de facto ambassador in the world of Android, it comes as little surprise that an adapter for USB and Lightning cables is included so that transferring data from other Androids or iOS devices is easy – simply connect the original cable to your previous phone and the other end, adapter ready, into the Pixel. The phone takes care of the rest. A USB-A to USB Type-C cable is included, but the plug adapter requires a cable that is fitted with USB Type-C on both ends, which is also in the box.

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Google brings their own design sensibilities to the Android world, in a phone that was built from the ground up. The results are, unfortunately, pretty polarizing. Many of you have already sounded off on the design of the Pixel XL, either saying that it has a beautifully simple look or lamenting its almost generic aesthetic.

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We are as split about the design as all of you.

We here at Android Authority are about as split as all of you. Personally, I had become rather accustomed to the somewhat barebones style of previous Google devices, considering that it mattered more what the capabilities were underneath the surface. There was a quiet but effective capability to the Nexus line, but each device brought single quirks to the style. The Nexus 6P had its camera ridge and the Nexus 5 had a large piece of glass adorning the camera, for example. For the Pixel line, Google gave their new phone one key differentiating feature – a top third encased in glass. I don’t particularly find it an eyesore, but I rather think of it as a boring alternative to the different quirks we used to get from phones that bore the Google name.

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That said, the phone’s look and feel still do their job properly – they make the phone feel really solid and sleek despite a measure of blandness in particularly this Very Silver version. The Quite Black version might be a little easier on the eyes while the North American-only Really Blue edition is, indeed, very different, but doesn’t add much more than a different hue.

A smaller Google Pixel is available with a 5-inch screen but we have the Pixel XL which sports a 5.5-inch screen. Larger upper and lower portions make the phone feel a little taller than it probably needed to be, but if there is plenty going on underneath all that surface area, then it can be excused. Overall, the XL feels plenty hefty and takes the usual amount of hand gymnastics in order to be used in one hand. Despite the glass on the back of the device, most of the backing is made of a smooth metal that unfortunately makes it slide about in the hand a bit too easily.

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The sides of the device remind us of the Moto Z Force, which had a pretty aggressive chamfer to add texture to the sides. This was definitely the right choice considering how much the phone can slide around because if the sides were just as smooth, dropping it would probably be much more likely.

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We will try our best not to compare the Pixel to the Nexus too much, but we do admit that the sideways Nexus logo is a bit missed. Even with a barebones overall design, that logo was distinctive. This time around, it is simply a large G on the bottom third and the glass upper side, all of which basically make for a phone that does look different, but does it in a somewhat boring fashion.

google pixel xl initial review aa (17 of 48) front

Google opted for AMOLED touchscreens for the Pixel phones, but the smaller Pixel comes with 1080p resolution. The XL sports Quad HD, and it looks pretty dang incredible. A lot of YouTube videos have been viewed in our first few days with the device, and everything from animated content to daily vlogs look great at resolutions 720p and higher. We also had a good time with games, as colors are rendered with the proper amount of vibrancy. So far, the only gripe I had with this display is that it gets just a little too dim at the lowest brightness setting – then again, this is a common facet of AMOLED displays. On the other hand, the screen looks great even in broad daylight when pumped up to the highest setting.

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There is a sense of polish and smoothness that is undeniable.
As one of the first phones to sport the Snapdragon 821, it should come as no surprise that the Google Pixel XL simply flies through its tasks without any issues. Especially considering the streamlined and pure version of Android that the Pixel sports, there is a sense of polish and smoothness that is undeniable. This is not to say that other Android devices lack in the speed department, there just seems to be a great deal of attention given to the transitions and movements among all of the Nougat 7.1 elements.

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But even in situations when slowdown should have been experienced, the phone has performed wonderfully – for example, the first boot up and long setup process that included downloading and installing a ton of applications might have made the phone feel a bit warmer, but it didn’t give me the usual slowdown I experience with other phones.

We will be playing more games and performing more tasks for the coming days, but so far the Pixel XL is a good poster child for the Snapdragon 821 and, indeed, for point of using pure Android in the first place.

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Hardware is a part of the Pixel phones that might put it at a disadvantage – after all, a Google device tends to not have all of the extra features plenty of Android devices sport.

Hardware is a part of the Pixel phones that might put it at a disadvantage.

That starts off with the lack of expandable storage, which I have already had to contend with in my weekend with the Pixel XL. My unit is a 32GB version, which means that 4K recording is not only stifled, but is a nuisance. Having a plethora of applications and, in particular, games installed takes up a lot of the 29.70GB made available to the user. With MOBIUS Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 7, and Final Fantasy 9 installed, only about half of the available storage was left for me to do photos and videos with. And at the high quality 4K recording option, the camera constantly reminded me of the less than 15 minutes of recording time I had available to me. Granted, Google Photos on the Pixel allows for the full resolution uploading and saving of all photos and videos, but having to find Wi-Fi to upload and, for that matter, the need to let the app clean up the Camera folder is a step I am still not used to doing.

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Sound is a welcome highlight for the Pixel, a phone that is supposed to take voice inputs at any time and play the soothing, if not robotic, voice of Google Assistant. To that end, the bottom mounted speaker (only one, the left one) is one of the best of its kind. It gets plenty loud and yet retains a good amount of body. It is by no means a good bass performer, but especially for evoking the voice of Google Assistant, it does the job incredibly well. For viewing videos or playing games, I did not feel the need to reach for a pair of headphones. Even so, the headphone experience on the Google Pixel is above average. There are no extra options and features in the phone for catering the sound like in the LG V10 or the HTC10, but the default sound profile is still very enjoyable, with the headphone jack properly driving my pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones.

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Our battery life testing is still ongoing, but I can definitely relay my experience after the last few days. A 3,450 mAh battery unit keeps the Pixel XL going for what can be described as the expected portion of the day, which can be easily tracked with the battery section of the settings. Personally, I really enjoy the way Nougat 7.1 shows the graph and the amount of time that has elapsed since unplugging the phone, even in the quick settings dropdown. With all that said, a day of somewhat aggressive usage that included GPS navigation and plenty of built-in speaker blasting took the phone out in about 16 hours with 4 hours of screen on time.

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Which brings me to an interesting change in my battery usage that has only come about due to the Pixel. As I mentioned, the speaker got a lot of play and was a part of the overall battery drain. This is because Google Assistant, the main software addition the Pixel introduces, is so effortlessly useful that I have been talking and listening to this phone more than any that came before it. This is also due to a great microphone that sports noise cancellation and voice recognition that remind me of previous Moto X devices.

Google Assistant in Allo: The top features you should know

Due to one key feature of Google Assistant – the Daily Briefing – I’ve not only gotten used to saying ‘good morning’ upon waking without even touching the phone, but I’ve listened to the Assistant’s built-in podcast player that only plays a curated list of news shows. The last two days saw over an hour of news brief listening in the morning – which actually registers on the battery usage tally.

Before we get deeper into Google Assistant, we have the other marquee feature of the Pixel XL – the camera, which is a 12.3MP main camera with f/2.0 aperture and a front facing unit shooting 8MP. While the cameras of the Pixel phones might look very similar to the Nexus 6P on paper, there are a few key enhancements that we’ve already noticed and thoroughly enjoy.

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First of all, the app is the same Google Camera that you may already be used to from the Nexus and the Google Play Store, meaning that it is a simple to use, auto interface without manual controls. Modes include Panorama and Lens blur, with Slow Motion available at 120fps at 1080p resolution.

HDR is now HDR+, a version of color and contrast enhancement that is technically always on. Though the option will show HDR+ Auto, most pictures show processing of HDR+ when they are accessed in the gallery immediately after shooting. Pictures are already well rendered, but having the HDR+ add that little extra bit will make for pretty consistently pleasing photos. That said, HDR+ does do a good job of adding some extra vibrancy to photos while bringing down the highlights in any picture that has a blown out area like the sun soaked sky. And the best part about the HDR+ is that it has basically no shutter lag – in only a few photos did I notice a small amount of processing after hitting the shutter.

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Which brings us to the other main feature of the cameras – video stabilization. The camera of the Pixel XL does not come with optical image stabilization and instead relies on analysis of the gyroscope while recording and software based post-stabilization. One immediate positive feature of this electronic image stabilization is that it is available while recording 4K video, which is not a feature commonly found on current Android phones. However, it is very common for software stabilization to lead to weird warping of a video and the dreaded ‘jello effect’ that Google hopes their version of stabilization will remedy.

So far, video stabilization has been incredible

And so far, it has blown me away. I put it through a few simple tests that included one walking shot and a couple stationary handheld examples. In all cases, the difference is basically night and day – the stabilization does a great job of noticeably making footage smoother, making it seem like the phone was on a gimbal during my walking example. Even more impressive is the lack of the ‘jello effect’ when moving from side to side. For a user like me that likes to vlog, the stabilization makes this already good performing 4K shooter an even more impressive companion to have for pictures and video, even if available space is an issue in this 32GB device.

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Overall, the camera has so far been very impressive and we will be doing more testing and comparisons with other Android devices to further consider its capabilities. For now, however, I have been very impressed with the camera and already consider it one of the better automatic shooters.

Which brings us to software, which is the latest version of pure Android in Nougat 7.1. Though the LG V20 was the first phone to come with Android Nougat, the ‘.1’ that the Pixel brings is quite significant and might make it one of the most sought after versions of Android. Unfortunately, it is unclear how much of this version of Android will actually make it to other, non-Google branded devices. And that might be a shame, because 7.1 is a delight to use, mostly due to Google Assistant.

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Hold the home button and Google Now on Tap is nowhere to be found – unless you swipe up from the bottom again, that is – because it is replaced with the voice-centric Google Assistant. Talking to an Android device is now as seamless as it has ever been, as everything from questions to search queries to even time-killing can be done with Google speaking right back at you. As already mentioned, this means that certain features like a daily briefing can be enjoyed by just asking the phone to do it. Even better, setting up the voice recognition makes Google Assistant ready no matter where the phone is, as long as it is near enough to hear ‘OK Google.’

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The microphone is delightfully sensitive and accurate, while Assistant is really responsive and quick. There is one hiccup, as Assistant doesn’t seem to be opening appropriate apps automatically based on the query anymore like it did during my First Look. Even the quick display of the top search result is still accurate, so a small tap on it is a small trade-off. Plenty of other features are available via Google Assistant and I found myself asking random questions just to see what it can do – I even played an odd game of Mad Libs where the Assistant asked me for all of the different words it needed to construct the ridiculous narrative.

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Assistant is already quite robust, but I can only imagine how much more it will grow over the life of the Pixel XL – after all, it is the centerpiece of the new Google ecosystem that incorporates Google Home.

Assistant is already quite robust, but I can only imagine how much more it will grow over the life of the Pixel XL

Otherwise, all of the different elements of Android remain very familiar even with the Pixel Launcher as the interface. The app drawer is still around, thankfully, and is accessed by swiping up on the homescreen. Google Now is still available to the left of the homescreens, while the big ‘G’ at the top gives easy access to a search bar that felt a little obsolete once I got used to using my voice instead. There are a lot of built-in wallpapers that can be used singularly or cycled from a curated list that is updated every day. Personally, I am a fan of the Live Earth wallpaper that rotates with the homescreens and mimics the real life sun, moon, and cloud conditions.

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The settings area is a little easier to navigate now in Nougat, and it now has an entirely separate area for on-demand help, though I haven’t used it yet. Multitasking users finally have a Google-made multi-window feature that is accessed by dragging a window in the recent apps screen to the area up top, but this is also something that I have not used extensively because moving in and out of the recent apps screen has been as smooth as ever.

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As long as Assistant continues to evolve, the Pixel has a feature that, if it never comes to other Android devices, does a great job of differentiating itself. The usefulness of Assistant predicates on whether or not the user actually takes advantage of it, and so far I think that everyone really should. Try it out with Allo and if you really enjoy Assistant, imagine having that functionality baked into the rest of the experience.

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We have definitely drawn a lot of conclusions about the Google Pixel XL so far, and we are going to see if that positivity continues in our testing. A full review of the phone will be done in the coming days, perhaps just after the release of all the pre-order devices on October 20. All versions of the phone are still sold out in the Google Store, which undercuts what many users thought would be the Pixel’s Achilles’ heel – the price. For $649 on the base 32GB Pixel, the Google phones certainly hold a premium price point even if, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to offer nearly as much as the rest of the Android army. This is a very valid argument considering the Google Pixel XL at 32GB is a whole $120 extra.

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So, before scoring the phone on its own merits, we will leave this initial review at this thought: if the rest of Android did not exist and the Google Pixel stood on its own, it would be one of the best phones we’ve ever seen or used. Unfortunately for the Pixel, the rest of Android undoubtedly offers more and for far better prices across the board. But the Pixel damn near perfects the basics where plenty of Android phones inexplicably falter. And for the first outing of the Pixel, Google has so far done a damn good job.

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